My life in outer space

Sheffield – Charles

The Mind Pool – Charles Sheffield (1986)

The Mind Pool

The original version of this novel was The Nimrod Hunt, written as a tribute to Alfred Bester and attempting a Besterite style. This was revised and re-released with the title of ‘The Mind Pool’ as Sheffield was apparently not happy with the original ending.
Centuries from now, Man has moved out into space and formed alliances with a group of alien races. The aliens are all, it appears, mentally unable to accept the concept of killing sentient life and are both appalled and fascinated by Humanity’s casual attitude to killing even members of its own species.
A human scientist, Livia Morgan, under the command of Esro Mondrian, Head of Border Security, has been experimenting with sentient constructs to patrol the borders of Human space as a precaution against contact with hostile aliens.
The constructs turn on their master however and are destroyed, but not before one escapes through a Mattin Link (a matter transmitter essentially) to another part of Human space.
The alien council, having been notified, determine that teams, each one containing members of each alien race, be trained to hunt the construct.
The aliens have stipulated that the human elements must have no prior military training, which makes selection practically impossible unless one searches on the most lawless planet in space, which happens to be Earth.
Esro Mondrian has two other reasons for visiting Earth. One is to meet his lover, Lady Tatiana, a woman addicted to the Paradox drug. The other is revealed later in the novel.
Luther Brachis has a friendly but competitive work relationship with Esro, but employs devious means to achieve his ends, actions which set in motion a complex series of events.
There’s an awful lot going on in this novel which is a lot more complex – structurally and in terms of plot – than other Sheffield works. We have troubled and complex relationships, trips to other worlds, space station laboratories, the grotesques of the warrens of Earth and a set of aliens that are biologically fascinating, but imbued with cosy Simak-esque personalities. Indeed, there are elements of this that remind one of ‘The Werewolf Principle’ particularly when we encounter the Mind Pool phenomenon, whereby a mental gestalt is achieved.
We have three couples, all of whom have issues of one sort or another, the male halves being irrevocably changed by the end of the novel. Indeed, some characters undergo a form of role reversal.
We meet Chan Dalton, central figure of the sequel ‘The Spheres of Heaven’ as a physically perfect male but with the mental development of a small child. Since his childhood he has been looked after by Leah, who loves him. Mondrian, desperate for recruits, and having bought Leah and Dalton’s indenture without having realised Dalton’s deficiencies, decides to employ banned technology to try and stimulate Chan’s mind into growth.
By the end of the novel Chan is a mature intelligent individual while Brachis and Mondrian, for different reasons, have been left in a mentally vegetative state, now being cared for by their respective partners, as Leah once cared for Chan.
The Morgan Construct itself is almost immaterial to the story. It is a Maguffin around which this complex interplay of politics and relationships is wound.
It has its flaws. There’s a certain retro SF style to it, in keeping with Sheffield’s claim that the novel is an Alfred Bester tribute. This works well enough in all the locations barring Earth itself which is roughly sketched with little depth and containing characters that border on parody.
The Mind Pool element is introduced very late in the story and its genesis and method of operation is a little unclear, at least to me.
On balance though, it’s a great bit of space opera featuring a set of main characters with unusually complex motivations.

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The Spheres of Heaven – Charles Sheffield (2001)

The Spheres of Heaven

The sequel to ‘The Mind Pool’ is set much later. Humanity has been forbidden to travel into alien space via the network of wormholes controlled by a Federation of three alien races. This is because humans are deemed to be a violent and volatile species.
The novel begins with a Government official tracking down Chan Dalton to offer him a special assignment.
It would appear that a wormhole gateway has appeared which is unconnected to the alien network and is also accessible by humans.
Ships have been sent through to investigate but none have returned. Would Chan Dalton to be willing to reassemble his old crew and investigate?
What follows is an adventure in another universe where the humans have to deal with both inimical lobster-like aliens and the fundamentalist pacifist beliefs of their own alien crew. In truth, Sheffield could have made more of this internal battle of ideologies but that is a minor flaw. The only other problem with this book is the title, which has no relevance to anything in the text.
Like most of Sheffield’s work, this is highly readable, highly entertaining space opera which contains some excellent characterisation and some complex and interesting aliens, if a tad anthropomorphic. In its way, Sheffield’s work is very traditional, albeit with a modern gloss. It falls very much into the Romantic camp although Sheffield doesn’t shirk on the physics and it never falls into the trough of Star Trek technobollocks. There’s a themic thread of addiction which covers both the humans that have been addicted to various substances and Friday Indigo who becomes a slave to the lobster-folk who can stimulate his pleasure centres directly.
Sheffield left enough open for a sequel here but sadly it would appear that never transpired.


The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 13 – Gardner Dozois (Ed) (2000)

The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 13

A decent crop of stories from 1999 many of which seem preoccupied with the theme – either subtly or overtly – of longevity or perhaps to be more accurate the preservation of body and/or personality.
It’s a mixed bag, but the overall quality is high.

The Wedding Album (1999) David Marusek (Asimov’s 1999.06)

Marusek takes the basic concept that photographs will develop into ‘sims’ – 3D sentient captures. He then runs with the idea on a surprising and twisting journey into the future.

10 to 16 to 1 (1999) James Patrick Kelly (aka 1016 to 1) (Asimov’s 1999.06)

A visitor from the future to the 1960s has to recruit a young boy into a mission to save the world from nuclear holocaust. Emotive and well-characterised.

Winemaster (1999) Robert Reed (F&SF July 1999)

Robert Reed is a master of strangeness and envisions a plague which destroys and recreates humans as digitised entities. Very clever.

Galactic North (1999) Alastair Reynolds (Interzone #145)

Reynolds here – over a vast span of time – tells us the origin of a situation detailed in his Revelation Space novels and a long chase across time and space. Marvellous stuff. An exemplary example of new space opera.

Dapple: A Hwarhath Historical Romance (1999) Eleanor Arnason (Asimov’s 1999.09)

A romantic tale of a young female alien belonging to a curious species. They are gay by nature and only turn to heterosexuality in order to breed. The girl wants to be an actor but as this is a strictly male occupation she disguises herself as a boy in order to pursue her career.
A romantic and poetic piece.

People Came from Earth (1999) Stephen Baxter (Moon Shots, July 1999)

Following a nanocaust the survivors of a moon colony struggle to keep the human race alive. Another piece which is romantic in nature and despite being scientifically accurate is more poetic than realistic.

Green Tea (1999) Richard Wadholm (Asimov’s, October 1999)

Dense and slightly baroque Hard SF here in which exotic matter is stored on the vane of a spaceship in order that it will be transmuted and destroy a nearby star in an act of revenge. Cleverly structured first person piece. Hard work, but worth persevering with.

The Dragon of Pripyat (1999) novelette by Karl Schroeder (Tesseracts 8, October 1999)

One of the best in this collection. A freelance troubleshooter is sent to the Chernobyl site as intelligence suggests that terrorists may be planning to blow open the ‘sarcophagus’ containing the failed reactor. However, tales of a dragon living in the poisoned town seem to point to something else going on. Excellent writing and characterisation.

Written in Blood (1999) Chris Lawson (Asimov’s June 1999)

Another excellent piece, the title of which refers to a muslim and his daughter on their Hajj, who meet a man who can write the text of the Koran into DNA. Again, excellent characterisation, and containing a hefty swipe at the practice of female genital mutilation.

Hatching the Phoenix (1999) Frederik Pohl (Amazing Stories, Fall 1999)

A late Heechee story in which Gelle-Klara Moynlon visits a project she has funded which is capturing and enhancing the light from a system that has already been destroyed. The enhanced resolution means they can observe an intelligent species on the surface before the nova rendered them extinct.

Suicide Coast (1999) M. John Harrison (F&SF Jul 1999)

A very dark tale from Harrison about dangerous sports, software and the nature of friendship.

Hunting Mother (1999) Sage Walker (Not of Woman Born – Mar 1999)

On a converted asteroid, an elderly genetic scientist and her half-cougar ‘son’ dance with death in a very poetic, romantic piece on the theme of how the old have to give way to the new.

Mount Olympus (1999) Ben Bova (Analog Feb 1999)

A workmanlike but unoriginal tale from Bova which features a rescue from the caldera of Olympus Mons on Mars

Border Guards (1999) Greg Egan (Interzone #148 Oct 1999)

Egan postulates a future where immortal humans live in an infinite array of worlds called The Territories. A young man around a century old meets one of the creators of the Jewel, the device which, when implanted, absorbs the cells and functions of the brain. Mind blowing stuff.

Scherzo with Tyrannosaur (1999) Michael Swanwick (Asimovs July 1999)

A prelude to ‘Bones of the Earth’, set in a future where enigmatic aliens have given humans the secret of Time Travel. Tourists can travel to a thousand years before the dinosaurs are wiped out and dine on plesiosaur steaks. Swanwick examines some of the benefits, consequences and pitfalls of time travel very cleverly here.

A Hero of the Empire [Roma Eterna] (1999) Robert Silverberg (F&SF Oct 1999)

Silverberg in his alternate world where the Roman Empire continues to the present day. An exiled favourite of the Emperor is sent to Mecca where he encounters a modern-day Mohamed.
Expertly done, giving much food for thought.

How We Lost the Moon, a True Story by Frank W. Allen (1999) Paul J. McAuley (Moon Shots, July 1999)

A great short piece by McAuley which details what happens when a small black hole escapes from a research facility on the dark side of the moon. As expected, well written with interesting characterisation. Much better than Greg Benford’s novel ‘Artefact’ which uses a similar premise (on Earth) but falls down on the one dimensional characters.

Phallicide (1999) Charles Sheffield (Science Fiction Age Sep 1999)

Sheffield writes here from the viewpoint of a young woman brought up in a US cult, who is allowed certain liberties because she has a talent for Chemistry and pharnaceuticals. The cult employ her skills to develop Viagra-style drugs to keep the elderly Patriarch and his aging minions sexually active. When one of the eldwrs plans to marry her thirteen year old daughter, she decides to rebel.
It raises many social and ethical questions and may have benefited from being developed into a longer format.

Daddy’s World (1999) Walter Jon Williams (Not of Woman Born – Mar 1999)

A very decent piece about the digitisation of consciousness and what it may mean in real terms.

A Martian Romance (1999) Kim Stanley Robinson (The Martians – 1999)

One of Robinson’s alternate tales of his terraformed Mars in which the terraforming has failed. Some of the residents embark on a trip across one of the frozen seas.

The Sky-Green Blues (1999) Tanith Lee (Interzone #142 – 1999)

A tale of alien love and the reality experienced by a fictional character. Poetic but a little odd.

Exchange Rate (1999) Hal Clement (Absolute Magnitude, Winter 1999)

Clement does what he does best here which is to postulate exploration of life on a planet five times the radius of the earth. It’s ravaged by earthquakes, has very little hydrogen, and a complex atmospheric mix. Despite his years Clement has managed to keep pace with the younger writers.

Everywhere (1999) Geoff Ryman (Interzone, #140 February 1999)

A positive view of the future from Ryman at a time when The Angel of The North is a historical landmark. Superlative writing.

Hothouse Flowers • (1999) • shortstory by Mike Resnick (Asimov’s Science Fiction, October-November 1999)

The concept of keeping old people alive taken to a logical but absurd conclusion.

Evermore (1999) Sean Williams (Altair #4, August 1999)

A probe containing the digitised copies of prospective colonists has its main drive destroyed by an encounter with a micrometeor. The human personalities, living in isolated virtual worlds and after thousands of years being borderline insane are brought together for a radical proposition.

Of Scorned Women and Causal Loops (1999) Robert Grossbach (F&SF Jan 1999)

The hadron collider is the setting for this intriguing time travel murder investigation.

Son Observe the Time (1999) Kage Baker (Asimovs May 1999)

Part of Baker’s ‘Company’ series which features an organisation of immortal time travellers. Here they are in San Francisco before the great earthquake of 1906 attempting to conserve art and literature that would otherwise have been destroyed. Someone else is there, however, with an altogether different agenda. Excellent stuff.


Summertide – Charles Sheffield (1990)

Summertide (Heritage Universe, #1)

It can be argued – at least by me – that SF is the reflection of the collective unconscious in that it tends to pick up on society’s fears and obsessions, such as the rash of ‘aliens among us’ stories in US Nineteen Fifties novels which paralleled a social paranoia – fostered by the Establishment – of Communism spreading like a disease.
CG Jung, who popularised the concept of the collective unconscious (although in his case he was talking of inherited concepts of archetypes) would no doubt be fascinated by SF’s dalliance with The Elder Race, usually a highly intelligent alien species who have disappeared from our universe, leaving enigmatic samples of their civilisation behind, often in the form of what has come to be known in SF circles as ‘Big Dumb Objects’.
‘Summertide’ is packed with Big Dumb Objects, left by a vanished race termed ‘The Builders’. Their vast and often impenetrable artefacts have been found across the galaxy, still in working order after millions of years although humanity has been able to discover only a few of the Builders’ secrets in the five thousand years since the first ones were discovered.
Hans Rebka, an agent of The Phemus Circle (a connected ‘clade’ of systems and planets) is suddenly removed from his mission to explore the Builder artefact Paradox, and sent to the Dobelle system to retrieve one Max Perry, an agent who seems reluctant to leave his post on the waterworld of Opal.
Dobelle is a binary system within which two planets, Opal and Quake, revolve about each other, although the worlds are connected by a Builder artefact called The Umbilical, a kind of extended space elevator. It has working carriages which can ferry passengers between the worlds.
Others are also heading to Opal. Darya Lang, an expert in Builder artefacts; Julius Graves, an Ethical Councillor of The Fourth Alliance; Atvar H’sial, an arthropod Cecropian and her interpreter slave, J’merlia; and Louis Nenda, an augmented human from the Zardalu Communion, with his slave hymenopt, Kalik.
All of them have put in requests to visit Quake; requests which have proved problematic.
Every 350,000 years the system experiences a Grand Conjunction in which the gas giants and suns move closer to Opal and Quake. The normal conjunctions are called ‘Summertide’ and cause tidal waves on the waterworld of Opal, and earthquakes and extreme vulcanism on Quake. Lang has discovered that artefacts around the galaxy have shown changes at various times and, factoring in the various distances, has concluded that the signals from all the artefacts will reach the Dobelle system simultaneously during Summertide.
When Rebka and Perry find that some of the visitors have forged Perry’s signature in order to commission an umbilical journey to Quake, they are forced to travel there and attempt to get the visitors back before the full force of Summertide kills them all.
There is a motif of duality running through this novel. Dobelle is a binary star system and the two planets which orbit each other are connected via the Umbilical artefact. Apart from Darya Lang, the vistors to Opal arrive in pairs. Atvar H’sial and her slave. j’merlia; Nenda and Kalik, and Julius Graves. Graves’ duality is due to the fact that he has an extra brain inserted into his body which has, quite against expectations, developed into a separate personality.
There is also a set of twins, and at the finale there are two alien objects, the details of which I won’t go into.
Sheffield deserves wider recognition. He writes exciting readable, popular space opera in which the science can not be faulted.
Having said that, there are flaws in ‘Summertide’. Set at least five thousand years in the future there is very little sign that human society has evolved any. That’s somewhat inconceivable. It’s also a tad unlikely that Hans Rebka would be diverted from a crucial mission just to analyse Max Perry and somehow cure him of a malady of the mind. Small quibbles, but quibbles nonetheless.


Cold As Ice – Charles Sheffield (1992)

Cold as Ice  (Cold as Ice #1)

‘Twenty-five years ago there was a great interplanetary war in the Solar System. It was a suicidal spasm in which terrible weapons were created and used; in which nine billion people were killed. The rivalries that led to the war are not gone. And a few of those deadly weapons remain – some still orbiting the sun in the debris of destroyed ships, some deliberately placed in storage.
Now Cyrus Mobarak, the man who perfected the fusion engine, is determined to bring human settlement to the protected seas of Europa. Opposing him is Hilda Brandt, Europa’s administrator. And caught between them are three remarkable young people: Jon Perry, Camille Hamilton, and Wilsa Sheer.’

Blurb from the 1993 Tor paperback edition

Sheffield is both a physicist and what one might call a ‘jobbing SF writer’. He rarely disappoints and produces cosy traditional SF in the tradition of Heinlein or Arthur C Clarke.
At the end of a war which raged across the Solar System in 2067 Some Belters are travelling through space with a complement of adults and children on a ship called The Pelagic’. A smart unmanned missile called a Seeker tracks them and the ship is destroyed, but not before nine rescue pods containing some of the children are ejected.
The story leaps ahead some twenty years to where a disparate group of characters converge on Jupiter where Cyrus Mobarak (legendary scientist hero, inventor of the portable fusion generator) is attempting to put his plan for the colonisation of Europa into effect.
Firstly he has to get past the redoubtable Hilda Brandt, official custodian of Europa, who wishes to keep the pristine ocean beneath Europa’s ice in its original state and uncontaminated.
Jon Perry (Earth’s foremost deep sea specialist), Camille Hamilton (a cosmologist), Wilsa Sheer (a talented composer and performer) and Nell Cotter (a front line reporter) find their destinies entwined as they all end up on Europa, while Rustum Battachariya (a corpulent puzzles expert) finds himself delving into an old mystery with which everyone seems to be involved.
Sheffield is compulsively readable, part of his charm being that he creates compelling individual characters. For instance, The Bat (as Battachariyan is known) lives a Diogenes-esque existence in his batcave on Ganymede where he is, ostensibly, in charge of the Transport system. His main genius, however, lies in his ability to divert part of his budget to purchases of discovered asteroid belt technology (at the time of the War, the Belters were the most technologically advanced section of the Solar System), often finding useful and profitable artefacts or inventions.
It’s one of those ‘feel good’ novels where everyone has to learn something new about themselves. By the end, as in a Shakespearean comedy, we are left with all the knots of confusion unravelled and at least three happy couples (four if you count Bat, who discovers a soulmate in the digitised consciousness of a long dead scientist whom he has transferred to his batcave.)
In some senses the novel lacks a plot since nothing very much happens. Its weakness is that there are no villains. One feels that an evil genius, pitting his or her wits against Cyrus and The Bat, would have contributed hugely to this entertaining if slightly over-cosy tale.

See also Clifford Simak’s ‘The Werewolf Principle’